The general vibe in the early nineties was one of tightening belts, of making do, of going without. People were concerned about the environment, but the emphasis then was on using less, not on consuming more as it is now. (If your cruelty-free sunscreen comes in a plastic bottle, it's not exactly eco-friendly. Sorry.)
One cold winter day in 1993 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Jon was in grad school for comparative religion(!) I was watching Phil Donohue. The guest was Amy Dacyczyn, sharing her tips for frugal living. Phil's mouth-breathing audience was giving her a hard time. They could scarcely believe the deprived environment she had created for her children in which they were never taken to McDonald's and wore clothes she bought at yard sales. When she described how she used a cheese grater to scrape the burned layer off of cookies the audience all but stoned her. I admired how Amy handled their horror with aplomb. A cookie is a cookie, motherfuckers. This was a woman I could learn from and I immediately bought her book which is really a compliation of issues of the frugal newsletter she published from her house in Maine.
My pressing concern at that time was how on earth we would afford two babies in diapers. I had a diaper service for Ian, but diaper service for two was beyond our budget. Amy Dacyczyn has six children, so there is a LOT of information about diapers in The Tightwad Gazette. When I read that the Tightwad solution to diapers was to wash them yourself, I realized my diaper problem was solved. It had never occurred to me that I could wash diapers myself. We didn't own a washing machine, but if Amy could take her kids' diapers to the laundromat, (which she did) then so could I. (This was, by the way, long before the advent of trendy super-expensive cloth diapers.)
Diapers aside, the driving force behind The Tightwad Gazette was Dacyczyn's refusal to conform to the notion that it is impossible to raise a family on one income. Not only did the Dacyczyn family want to raise their family on one income, they wanted a large family and they wanted to buy a farmhouse with attached barn in Maine. They were successful because they made such a stellar effort to spend less and save more. Furthermore, their lifestyle seemed fun, not deprived.
I'm no stranger to thrift--my parents were thrifty and drilled their habits into my head, but there's always more to learn. From The Tightwad Gazette I picked up a mindset that allows me to creatively come up with my own money-saving ideas. For example, I wondered if I could set my dishwasher to do a "top rack" wash with dishes in the bottom rack. I discovered that dishes on the bottom rack WILL get clean during a top-rack only wash, as long as you load it lightly. The top rack wash cycle runs for 38 minutes and uses less water than the regular cycle, which runs for over 70 minutes.
But you're saying, "Patience, I have money to BURN. I don't need to read about washing and reusing zip lock bags." That's fine, but what sets The Tightwad Gazette apart from other frugal lifestyle books is that it's so entertaining, particularly the letters from readers. Nothing beats a New England yankee for parsimony and most of the letters come from New Englanders. There's also the environmental factor, since a frugal lifestyle is kind to the environment and here you will find a wealth of information on reducing your footprint and none of it involves buying expensive organic products.
When our economy turned sour in 2008, I hoped that there'd be a silver lining: that people would return to thrift and decreased consumption, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Or maybe I've become so affluent I've lost touch. I no longer need to make homemade baby wipes out of paper towels and baby shampoo, but I reread The Tightwad Gazette every so often to give myself a reality check. I think it's time.